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DIRECTION I. – Diligently inquire into the ends and designs, for which usually God sends sickness and affliction upon persons.
An infinitely holy and gracious God hath various and wise ends in afflicting the children of men, whether they be converted or unconverted; which ought to be duly considered by all, and especially by those who are visited with sickness: some whereof I shall instance.
I. God visits with sickness, to cause careless sinners bethink themselves concerning their soul's state and condition, who perhaps had never a serious thought about it before. There are many who, when in health and strength, are so intent upon the pleasures and profits of the world, that they mind nothing else: all the warnings, exhortations, and counsels of ministers, teachers, and friends, are lost upon them: they cannot endure to entertain a thought of God, of the soul, of death, of heaven, of hell, or of judgement to come till God doth cast them into some sickness or bodily distress, and then sometimes they begin with the prodigal, to come to themselves, and bethink themselves concerning their souls and a future life. Now this is God's design, I Kings viii. 47. "If they bethink themselves in the land whither they are carried captives, and repent," &c. By sickness God gives a man, that before was wholly diverted from soul matters, by business, company, and pleasures, occasion to bethink himself. The man is now confined to his chamber, is deprived of his former company and diversions, and so gets time and leisure to commune with his own heart, and reflect on his former ways, and to hear what conscience speaks concerning a judgment-day, and a world to come, and the need of a Saviour. And so, by the blessing of God upon such afflictions, not a few have begun their first acquaintance with God and Christ, and serious religion. Nay, the furnace is Christ's usual workhouse, where he has formed the most excellent vessels of honour and praise, Isa. xlviii. 10. " I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction." Manasseh, the prodigal, Paul, and the jailer, were all chosen there.
II. God visits us with sickness, in order to instruct and teach us those things we know not, Psalm xcvi. 12. It was a saying of Luther, Schola crucis est schola lucis. And indeed the school of affliction is the place where many of Zion's scholars have made good proficiency in spiritual and experimental knowledge. Now there are several remarkable lessons which God would teach us by the rod.
1st, The knowledge of God. It is said of Manasseh, 2 Chron. xxxiii. 12, 13. – "When he was brought to affliction, &c. then Manasseh knew that the Lord he was God." Though Manasseh was well educated, and early taught the knowledge of God, yet till now he knew not the Lord; but now he knew him in his power and greatness, his holiness and hatred of sin; now he knew God in his goodness and mercy, and wondered that he had kept him so long out of hell.
2dly, Another lesson is the knowledge of ourselves. In time of health and prosperity we are apt to forget ourselves, and our mortality, but sickness causeth us to know that we are but men, and frail men, Psalm ix. 20; that God hath an absolute sovereignty over us, and can as easily crush us as we do a moth.
3dly, He teacheth us the emptiness of the world. How vain a help is that, which fails a man in the time of his greatest need! And ofttimes we see that worldly means and friends can never give the least ease to the bodies, nor comfort to the souls of persons under sickness and distress.
4thly, Another lesson is the great evil of sin, which is the cause of all sickness and diseases whatsoever, I Cor. xi. 30. " For this cause many are weak and sickly among you." Ah, what a root of bitterness must that be, which brings forth such bitter fruit!
5thly, He showeth us the preciousness and excellency of Christ and his promises; which only can enable a christian to rejoice in tribulation, and be easy under the greatest pains and diseases. There are many who are indifferent about Christ in time of health, that, when sickness comes, do change their note and cry, O for an interest in Christ above all things!
III. God sends such trials and distresses, in order to mortify and kill sin in us, Isa. xxvii. 9. "By this shall the iniquity of Jacob be purged, and this is all the fruit to take away his sin." And indeed sickness and affliction, through the blessing of God, have a native tendency to weaken and subdue our prevailing sins and lusts. O man, is thy heart turned hard, so as thou art not sensible of thy own sins, or of other's sufferings? God sees meet to try the fire of affliction, to see if it will melt thy frozen heart. Hast thou undervalued health and slighted thy mercies? Now God removes them from thee, that, by the want of them, thou mayest know the worth of them. Art thou turned proud and self-conceited? God sends thee a thorn in the flesh to prick the swollen bladder of pride, that thou mayest not be puffed up above measure; God lays thee low upon thy bed, that thou mayest he lowly in thy heart. Doth love to the world prevail in thee? God sends affliction to discover its emptiness, and wean thee from it. Art thou fallen secure, dead and formal? God sends affliction to awake thee that thou mayest not sleep the sleep of death.
IV. God sends sickness, to awaken in us the spirit of prayer and supplication, and make us more earnest and importunate in our addresses to the throne of grace. There is a great difference betwixt our prayers in health and in sickness, betwixt our humiliations in prosperity and in adversity. In prosperity we pray heavily and drowsily, but adversity adds wings to our desires, Isa. xxvi. 16. "Lord, in trouble have they visited thee, they poured out a prayer when thy chastening was upon them." Though they were backward enough to pray before, yet they pour it out most freely now. The very heathen mariners cried loud to God in a storm. What a famous prayer did Manasseh make when he was under his iron fetters! We find it thrice mentioned 2 Chron. xxxiii. 13, 18, 19. And the voice of fervent prayer is what the Lord desires to hear.
V. Another end is, to loose our hearts from things of this world, and cause us to look and long for heaven. When we enjoy health and ease in this world, we are apt to say with Peter on the mount, "It is good for us to be here;" but, when distress cometh, God's people will turn their tongue, and say with the Psalmist, Psal. lxxiii. 28. "It is good for me to draw nigh to God." When things here go well with us, we are apt to think ourselves at home; but, when trouble ariseth, we begin to say, Arise, let us depart, this is not our rest. Though heaven was much out of sight and out of mind before, yet when afflicting sickness comes, the poor believer will sigh, and say with David, Psalm lv. 6. "O that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest; I would hasten my escape from the windy tempest."
VI. God designs to make the world bitter and Christ sweet to us. By such affliction he lets men see that the world is nothing but vanity and vexation of spirit, that riches avail not in the day of wrath; then it is they may see the insufficiency of the world to relieve them, that (as one saith) a velvet slipper cannot cure the gout, a golden cap cannot drive away the head-ache, nor a bed of down give ease in a fever. And as the world turns bitter, so Christ grows sweet to the believer. In time of ease and health, Christ is often very much neglected and forgot. As the disciples, while the sea was calm, suffered Christ to sleep with them in the ship, thinking they might make their voyage well enough without his help; but when they were ready to be drowned, then they saw their need of Christ, they awaked him, crying, "Master, save us, we perish;" so the best of saints, when all is easy about them, are prone to suffer Christ to sleep within them, and so to neglect the lively actings of faith in Christ; but when the storm of affliction begins to arise, and they are ready to be overwhelmed with distress, then they cry, "None but Christ, none but Christ."
VII. God trysts with sickness and distress in order both to prove and improve his people's graces, Deut. viii. 2. Rev. ii. 10. Grace is hereby both tried and strengthened.
1st, Such afflictions do prove both the truth and strength of our graces, as they serve to try if we love God for himself, if we can endure and hold out in serving him, waiting and depending upon him notwithstanding of discouragements. That faith will suffice for a little affliction, that will not suffice for a great one. Peter had faith enough to come upon the sea at Christ's call; but, as soon as the waves began to swell, his faith began to fail, and his feet to sink, till Christ mercifully caught hold of him, saying, " O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?" Matt. xiv. 31. Little did Peter think his faith was so weak till now.
2dly, They tend to improve our graces also, by quickening and strengthening them. They serve as a whetsone to sharpen faith, so as the soul is made to renounce earthly shelters, and clasp about God, in Christ, as its only refuge and portion. They excite to repentance and serious mourning for sin; for, like the winter frosts and snows, they make the fallow ground of our hearts more tender. They prompt us to heavenlymindedness, self-denial, and patient waiting on God. Yea, the experience of God's people can attest it, that grace is never more lively than under affliction. David never found himself better as to his spiritual state, than when he was hunted as a partridge on the mountains; and hence he says, Psalm cxix. 71. "It is good for me that I have been afflicted."
VIII. God's aim is, to awaken us to redeem time, to prepare for flitting, and clear up our evidences for heaven. In time of health we are apt to trifle away time, loiter in our journey, and forget that we are pilgrims on the earth: Wherefore God sends sickness as his messenger to mind us hereof. Now it highly concerns us, when sickness attacks us, to consider and meditate upon those ends for which God brings on distress, and pray earnestly that they may be accomplished in us. And so our sickness shall not be unto death (spiritual or eternal) but to the glory of God and the good of our souls.
(To be continued, D.V.)